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A Commentary to Pushkin’s Lyric Poetry, 1826–1836

Michael Wachtel

Publication Year: 2011

Alexander Pushkin’s lyric poetry—much of it known to Russians by heart—is the cornerstone of the Russian literary tradition, yet until now there has been no detailed commentary of it in any language.
    Michael Wachtel’s book, designed for those who can read Russian comfortably but not natively, provides the historical, biographical, and cultural context needed to appreciate the work of Russia’s greatest poet. Each entry begins with a concise summary highlighting the key information about the poem’s origin, subtexts, and poetic form (meter, stanzaic structure, and rhyme scheme). In line-by-line fashion, Wachtel then elucidates aspects most likely to challenge non-native readers: archaic language, colloquialisms, and unusual diction or syntax. Where relevant, he addresses political, religious, and folkloric issues.
    Pushkin’s verse has attracted generations of brilliant interpreters. The purpose of this commentary is not to offer a new interpretation, but to give sufficient linguistic and cultural contextualization to make informed interpretation possible.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Series: Publications of the Wisconsin Center for Pushkin Studies

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. xvii-xix

The purpose of this book is less to fill a lacuna than to bridge a gaping chasm in the existing scholarly literature. Given the centrality of Pushkin’s work to the Russian literary tradition and the virtually hagiographical reverence that attends any object or location associated with him, one can only marvel that to this day no...

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pp. xxi

Most of this book was written in 2007 and 2008, during a year- long sabbatical from teaching at Princeton University. My research was generously supported by Princeton as well as by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation. I cannot sufficiently thank these three institutions for...

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Reader’s Guide

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pp. xxiii-xxiv

Most readers will use this book to learn about individual poems. Since I do not expect them to read consecutively, I have made no assumptions about what they might have encountered elsewhere in the commentary. However, in order to avoid potential misunderstandings, I strongly urge the first-time user to begin...

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pp. 3-40

Ivan Ermolaevich Velikopol’skii (1797–1868) was a minor but prolific poet and a compulsive gambler. In 1820, he lost 30,000 rubles (a huge sum) in the provinces and then still more in Petersburg, where he attempted recoup his losses. He and Pushkin exchanged a number of poems; not surprisingly, they are all...

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pp. 41-69

This famous civic poem is addressed to the Decembrists. After the uprising five of their leaders were executed and their bodies buried in anonymous graves (a fact that would disturb Pushkin to the end of his days). More than a hundred others were jailed (see line 14) or exiled to Siberia, where they were forced to work...

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pp. 70-121

Pushkin’s poem to Tsar Nicholas of 1826 (“Стансы”) was first published in January 1828, and it was immediately attacked as being disingenuous. Pushkin responded with the present poem, in which he defends himself against such criticisms, insisting that his statements were motivated not by flattery, but...

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pp. 122-168

Pushkin spent considerable time at the Ushakov household, flirting with Ekaterina Nikolaevna (1809–1872) and, somewhat less seriously, with her younger sister Elizaveta (1810–1872). The latter kept an album, in which Pushkin left his notorious “Don Juan list” (a list of women he had wooed – both successfully...

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pp. 169-225

An occasional poem, written for a masquerade ball where the participants, costumed as personages from Greek mythology, were supposed to address verses to the tsar and his wife. Pushkin’s poem was written for Countess Ekaterina Fedorovna Tizengauzen (granddaughter of Kutuzov, daughter of...

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pp. 226-236

The tomb in question is that of General Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov (1745–1813), who is widely credited with having saved Russia in the war against Napoleon. Kutuzov was interred in the Kazan Cathedral in Petersburg. The poem first appears in Pushkin’s letter to E. M. Khitrovo (Kutuzov’s daughter) from...

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pp. 237-248

At the beginning of canto 9 of The Inferno, Dante and his guide Vergil encounter a foul smell rising from the lower circles of Hell. While they accustom themselves to the stench, Vergil explains the structure of Hell, that each of the bottom rungs is composed of a number of smaller circles. Moneylenders...

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pp. 249-275

Burgi (268) contends that this brief poem is a free translation of a passage in The Deipnosophists that comes directly after the fragment “Вино,” which Pushkin had translated on the same day that he wrote this piece. The passage in question is a citation from the Athenian physician Mnesitheus, who states, in the...

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pp. 276-308

The presence of the English phrase “at home” (which, judging from the context, Pushkin understood in some non-existent idiomatic sense) has led scholars to search for an English source. However, no convincing model has been adduced. Pushkin’s plan is hardly distinctive; the idea of retreating with one’s beloved...

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pp. 309-338

Pushkin did not read ancient Greek and could only have known the Anacreontic poems in translation. Like many previous translators, he changes the final line of this particular poem, which in the original Greek is somewhat illogical (Cooper, 185–86). Given the wealth of translations available to Pushkin (in both French and...

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pp. 339-372

This poem accompanied a copy of Pushkin’s История Пугачева (The History of the Pugachev Rebellion) that the author gave to his old friend Denis Vasil’evich Davydov (1784–1839) during one of the latter’s infrequent visits to Petersburg. Davydov was famed as a “hussar-poet,” – Pushkin admired him in both capacities...

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1830–1836 (year of composition uncertain)

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pp. 373

This mysterious dramatic monologue is presumably connected to Southey’s “Roderick, Last of the Goths” (see commentary to “На Испанию родную”), but the precise nature of that connection is difficult to determine. The passage does not directly correspond to any scene in the poem; it does, of course, recall the dream...

Works Consulted

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pp. 375-384

Index of Poems by Title and First Line

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pp. 385-395

Index of Names

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pp. 397-404

E-ISBN-13: 9780299285432
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299285449

Page Count: 404
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Publications of the Wisconsin Center for Pushkin Studies